By Dave Lindorff | 3.27.03
Crude History Lesson
Is the war all about oil after all?
The Bush administration has come up with many excuses for attacking
Iraq-Saddam Hussein used poison gas, he possesses or is developing
weapons of mass destruction, he is a brutal tyrant-but the one thing
it insists the war is not about is oil. As Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld stated in November: "There are certain things like
that, myths that are floating around. It has nothing to do with oil,
literally nothing to do with oil."
But a new study by three researchers at the Institute for Policy
Studies, based upon previously unpublished documents, shows not only
that oil is at the root of the conflict, but Rumsfeld was in the
thick of the effort to get that oil. A sort of mini-Pentagon Papers
account of the history of American diplomatic and economic relations
with Iraq since the early days of the Reagan administration, the
study (available in full at
http://www.ips-dc.org/crudevision/crude_vision.pdf) shows that a
whole host of Reagan administration officials, together with the
Bechtel Corporation, spent years trying to win Saddam Hussein's
approval for a new oil pipeline to run west from the Euphrates River
oil fields to Jordan and on down to the Gulf of Aqaba. The goal was
to establish an alternate route for shipping Arab oil that would
avoid the Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz, which were seen as
vulnerable to Iranian attack.
In an effort to win Hussein's approval for this multibillion-dollar
pipeline, which was to be built by the Bechtel Corporation with the
help of Export-Import Bank funding, Rumsfeld met with Saddam and
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on December 20, 1983.
Rumsfeld, then CEO of the Searle pharmaceutical company, had been
named by President Reagan as a special peace envoy. At the time of
his visit, Iraq was in its bitter war with Iran, and was suspected of
using chemical weapons against Iranian troops.
While Rumsfeld has insisted that his visit to Iraq was related to a
peace mission, a State Department communication about the meeting
quotes Rumsfeld as saying: "I raised the question of a pipeline
through Jordan. [Aziz] said he was familiar with the proposal. ...
However, he was concerned with the proximity to Israel as the
pipeline would enter the Gulf of Aqaba. He seemed to feel that the
only way to prevent Israel from attacking such a vulnerable point
would be to have a number of countries involved. ... He said they are
interested but need to find the right formula."
There was no mention of Iraq's use of chemical weapons. On March 5,
1984, the State Department issued a public statement condemning
Iraq's use of poison gas against Iran, but records obtained by IPS
show that the government was continuing to promote the pipeline in
private. On March 20, Bechtel executives met with Jordanian and Iraqi
officials in Jordan about the pipeline. Then on March 26, Rumsfeld
returned to Iraq a second time to meet with Aziz. That same day, the
United Nations provided public confirmation that Iraq was using
chemical weapons against Iran.
Again, documents relating to that visit show that the pipeline, not
Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction, was the issue. Two days
earlier, before his trip, Rumsfeld had been briefed by Secretary of
State George Schultz, who noted that U.S.-Iraq relations had been
harmed by the department's earlier public condemnation of Iraq.
U.S. diplomat James Placke was dispatched to meet with Iraqi diplomat
Kizam Hamdoon on April 6. At that session, Placke reportedly asked
his Iraqi counterpart to make sure that Iraq did not "embarrass" the
United States by purchasing its chemical weapons from U.S. suppliers.
In a memo about that meeting, Schultz, a former president of Bechtel,
wrote: "We would ask the Government of Iraq's cooperation in avoiding
situations that would lead to a difficult and potentially
The IPS details how negotiations over the Aqaba pipeline continued
through 1986, while Iraq continued to use chemical weapons in its
brutal war with Iran. (Between 1983 and 1988, Iraq reportedly dropped
more than 13,000 chemical bombs on Iran.) The deal was finally
rejected by Iraq that year, in favor of cheaper pipelines through
Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But as the IPS authors write, "The fallout
from Bechtel's failed pipeline initiative has been considerable."
They describe the rejection of the plan as "a turn in U.S.-Iraq
relations" and note that "many of the project's promoters became
architects of the present Bush-Cheney campaign against Iraq." This
list includes Roger Robinson, co-founder of the Center for Strategic
Policy, a think tank which has hatched numerous plans for invading
Iraq, and Lawrence Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State who now
serves on the boards of Halliburton and Phillips Petroleum.
With Bechtel and Vice President Dick Cheney's former company
Halliburton in line for major contracts in the planned "rebuilding"
of Iraq at the end of the current war, it's a fair bet that the
once-canceled Aqaba pipeline will be back on the drawing board again.
Dave Lindorff, a regular contributor to In These Times, is the author
of Killing Time, a new book on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.